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The Lady in the Van PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
27 11 2015

ImageDirected by Nicholas Hytner

There's no doubt that most people going to see this film will be well-aware of its subject matter - how, in 1984, Alan Bennett allowed the eccentric and smelly Miss Shepherd, an elderly street dweller, to park the decrepit campervan which was her home in his drive, where it, and its successors, stayed for 15 year until her death, Ten years later he wrote a play about it, which has now been turned into a film by the original stage director, Nicholas Hytner

On paper an awkward subject for drama, by transforming his internal thoughts into an actual dialogue between the Bennett who lives and experiences and the Bennett who observes and writes, it is more than just a linear narrative, but strives to become a film not just about Miss Shepherd and her relationship with Bennett but questioning how much writers ‘use' other people in their work (a theme that also loomed large in Baumbach's Mistress America earlier this year). And while Bennett is widely seen as an angel by his friends and neighbours (even as they breathe sighs of relief that it's him not them), he accuses himself of taking her up as raw material. There's also his lurking guilt about neglect of his mother, for whom his care for Miss Shepherd becomes a kind of substitute, easier because it doesn't have the emotional baggage. What also comes through as a strong theme is Bennett's feeling that the ‘doer' Bennett has not ‘done' anything much over the fifteen years, and in many ways Miss Shepherd has had, overall, a fuller and more colourful life - the perpetual nag of the timid and introspective heart as times passes.

This more serious purpose of the film never really bites deep, though, and the fact is, its strength, which is considerable, is in its plaintive comedy, rooted in that customary pleasure of Bennett's dry, wry dialogue and view of the world and himself. Alex Jenkins impersonates Bennett quite amusingly, though his differentiation between the watcher and the doer is not always as clear as it might be (In the play, obviously, they were played by different actors). And he's a little too strong on the campness and too light on the donnishness. When Alan himself bikes into the final shot, so in fact you have three versions of the bloke, you remember what you've been missing.

It almost goes without saying that Maggie Smith (who also starred in the stage play) nails Miss Shepherd, in both her outward bravado and inner vulnerability, proving once again she is equally accomplished acting on stage and screen. Though I could have done with a little bit less of her, in fact the whole film becomes rather stuck in the middle and could have profitable been pruned of a several minutes. But there are many pleasures, not least the cameo appearances of all eight of the original History Boys, playing such peripheral characters as estate agent, ambulance man, and a chirpy James Corden as a fruit and veg seller. And a bevy of the usual suspect actors put in delightful turns as Bennett's oh-so-typical Primrose Hill neighbours.

Altogether it's an entertaining couple of hours, not a great film as such, but a satisfying record of a minor Bennett play.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, 21 November 2015

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